by Lang Reid
This week’s book was written by the famed travel writer Paul Theroux, though
a “book” is probably a misnomer. It is in fact, a collection of short
stories, previously written for a disparate group of magazines, and
re-jigged into this collection of travel writings 1985-2000 (Fresh-Air
Fiend ISBN 978-0-241-95055-5, reprinted 2011).
Author Theroux is an American, with
decided ideas on life and living, and where. He also comes across as
someone who hates American tourists, though he will have a lot of supporters
there! He is also an aging radical, and much of his early writings reflect
this, though like all teenage rebels, pragmatism eventually is the winner.
He describes his transition to writing
as, “I was not embraced as a traveler, I was seen as a stranger, sometimes a
dangerous one. My experience of that conflict made me a writer.”
He is happy to experience any arena of
conflict, and even becomes embroiled in the conflicts in juvenile lust.
“The fact that something is forbidden or deemed wicked, has made it more
pleasurable, especially for those of us who grew up in an atmosphere of
repression. Half the country breaks state laws in the bedroom. Obviously
that is part of the fun in living in places like Alabama and Georgia.” So
now, has Theroux interested you enough to travel there?
His visit(s) to China showed the rate
of change in that country, and Theroux, with much foresight mentions, “… one
of the numerous auto accidents I saw in an average day as a metaphor for
modernized China - the so-called miracle you read about every time you open
a magazine or newspaper. Seen from a distance the country does seem
wondrous, but up close it is messier and more complicated. Like most
economic miracles it is also an ecological disaster.” Indeed, Theroux
writes that there is no reason for tourists to go to the manufacturing
cities of the economic zones. “Tourists would be in the way.”
One of the items relates to his going
to an uninhabited island in the Republic of Palau. Once again, a humorous
report of his looking for solitude, though remaining connected with the
world at large with a host of electronic devices including sat-nav and an
emergency rescue device. He also says that Palau has 400 species of hard
coral. (I’m on the next canoe.)
A weighty read at 450 pages for B.
495. Separate short stories, it is very easy to pick up and put down, but
if you are looking for hints on where to go in Bechuanaland and the cheapest
hotels, then this is not the book for you. It is very much the personal
muses of a well-traveled, but very individual character. In many ways it
reminded me of books about cars by Jeremy Clarkson (presenter of Top Gear
BBC). Humorous, slick and teaches the reader nothing about cars.
Similarly, Theroux is humorous, slick, and the book teaches you nothing
about travel. If you are a Theroux fan, you will love the book. For me it
was, as I mentioned before, easy to pick up and put down. I chose the
With an obvious tilt towards “Catch-22”, Joseph Heller’s magnificent book
reviewed here a few months ago, Hitch-22, with the subtitle A
Memoir (ISBN 978-1-8435-922-2, Atlantic Books, 2010) is an autobiography
by Englishman Christopher Hitchens.
In many ways, Hitchens comes across as
the result of the era in which he was raised. A naval officer father, a
remote figure always referred to as “The Commander”, even though he was not
always that rank, and a mother who separated from the family to live with
another man, and eventually was part of a double suicide. The loss of his
mother, called Yvonne by Hitchens, again showing the family gulf, obviously
affected him as a young man, and psychologists would have a field day with
his analysis, pointing out that his earlier sexual ambivalence was probably
the result of this upbringing.
The book covers the entire lifespan
from his birth in 1949 through to today where he is now living with an
esophageal cancer, and with his own brand of atheism is certainly not in
God’s waiting room (though Hitchens would spell “God” in lower case “god”).
His early political leanings to the
left are ones that are shared by most young university intellectuals,
reaching their outward protests and sit-ins with out much depth to their
beliefs. As one gets older and more mature (“wiser” would be incorrect),
these leanings change, and Hitchens describes his vacillation through life,
currently describing himself as no longer a ‘socialist’ but still a Marxist
as well as a neo-conservative. He also managed to be given a spanking by
Maggie Thatcher, and sleep with two of her party members. All very
confusing, but also all very understandable when you regard the intellect of
this man and his deliberate, at times, stance to be provocative.
Hitchens writes of his travels and
travails around the world, and the many causes that he has espoused,
including the unification of Ireland and the condemnation of military
He became a very public face with his
support of the war in Iraq, but as a young man had been against the
involvement of the west in the war in Vietnam, but now believed it was
America’s duty to depose Saddam Hussein, despite the cost. He also was one
of the few journalists to deny the Weapons of Mass Destruction hysteria.
At B. 530 from the Bookazine shelves,
it is top money for a wonderfully obtuse book, which will keep you
interested from cover to cover, though you have to do it in small bites, as
otherwise the plethora of names in the memoirs begins to read like a Yellow
Pages entry under the heading of Intelligentsia.
I did enjoy it, despite that, but it
did take much longer to digest than I would have imagined initially. It is
also very British-based (up till 1981 when he emigrates to the USA), going
through the better known universities of Oxford and Cambridge (both somewhat
of an anachronism these days, I feel) and then the peerage and its
representation in the political parties of the day.
All in all, a very interesting and
extremely opinionated chap.
There is always some doubt when you read of a police enquiry into the
police. How objective are the results? So when a book is written by a
journalist, looking critically at the work of journalists, how objective
would these opinions be?
John Simpson, a journalist for over 40
years has written a new book called Unreliable Sources (ISBN
978-0-330-43563-5, Pan Books, 2010) which has the sub-title, How the 20th
century was reported.
The inherent ‘truth’ in this book is
evident on the first page of the introduction where author Simpson writes,
“People who read the news in a paper or on a website, who listen to a radio
or watch television news, usually imagine they are getting something
approaching the truth. Instead, they are merely getting a version of what
has happened.” What a damning concept to make public, and that’s just page
1 of the introduction.
The book proper begins with the Boer
War and the young Winston Churchill, who had already set himself apart from
the journalist van. This was a time when “war artists’ were still being
used, as the photographic coverage was not yet well developed. In those
days, the reporter was expected to further the national cause. Even to the
point of fawning!
Interestingly, he writes, “For the
Daily Mail to question the (Boer) war was a betrayal of the soldiers who
were fighting and dying on the frontline.” (Now fast forward to Iraq and
Afghanistan, and make up your own minds as to the veracity of some reports.)
The reporting by the BBC of the start
of “the troubles” in Northern Ireland in Londonderry, called “Bloody
Sunday”, showed just how stories could be glossed over and the truth
hidden. Unfortunately it reminded me of the red shirt riots in Bangkok,
where the truth is still clouded.
The ‘shock, horror’ headlines, so
beloved of the Rupert Murdoch tabloid press, were in fact not invented by R.
Murdoch and the late News of the World, but by the Daily Express in the
early 1900’s with banner headlines on the front page such as “Beaten to
Death - Kills seven navies in a few minutes.” Hmm, makes the Chiang Mai
Mail very conservative.
With 560 pages, some photographic
plates plus a bibliography and an index, this is indeed a weighty tome. You
will find you can pick up and begin reading about any decade, to find sadly,
that falsehoods, being economical with the truth, to downright lies have
been the stock in trade of the mainstream press for more than a century.
At B. 430 on the Bookazine shelves,
this is a disturbing book. For those who would blindly believe everything
that is published, the realization that there are many pressures that can
affect a ‘news’ item before it goes to print, will be a shock. For those
who have worked as journalists, this book is totally factual, no matter how
painful it is to accept. Not only should the public read this book, but
every cadet journalist as well.